Hands-On First Impressions of Samsung's Galaxy S5 Smartphone

Samsung today unveiled its next generation Galaxy S smartphone, the Galaxy S5, during the 2014 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. The media event was simulcast at Samsung's Galaxy Studio in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood.

I didn't make it to Barcelona for the MWC show this year, but I did stop by the Galaxy Studio to check out the new Galaxy S5. I spent about 15 minutes with the new device, and though it's difficult to really test some of the newest features with the device tethered to a desk in a small demonstration space, I did come away with some notable first impressions.

Samsung Galaxy S5 Hands-On First Impressions

The first thing you notice about the GS5 is that it looks nearly identical to the GS4. The most notable differences in appearance are the ridged bezel that surrounds the device, as opposed to the smooth plastic bezel on both the GS4 and the GS3. The difference is barely noticeable at first, but I do think it's an improvement, at least from function standpoint -- the ridges give the bezel a bit more "grip."

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The back cover is also textured, with a series of small, but not too tiny, indented dots. The cover is made of a "faux leather" material that feels kind of cheap and "plasticy," which is a disappointment. Atop my Galaxy S5 wish list was the hope that Samsung would use some premium materials in constructing the GS5, compared to the flimsy plastic bezel and battery cover on the GS4. But I guess that just wasn't meant to be.

 Samsung Galaxy S5

CIO (US)

Samsung Galaxy S5

The Galaxy S5 is both larger and heavier than the GS4, though not by much, and the difference is negligible. The GS5 is 142mm (H) x 72.5mm (W) x 8.1mm (D), and it weighs 145g, compared to the GS4, which is 136.6mm x 69.8mm x 7.9mm and 130g. The 15g weight difference seems notable, and it probably has to do with the larger battery in the GS5 -- 2800 mAh compared to the GS4's 2600mAh power pack.

The Galaxy S5's display is just slightly bigger than the GS4's 5" display, at 5.1." Both displays are Full HD Super AMOLED (1920x1080) but the Galaxy S5's screen seemed brighter when both were turned all the way up to full brightness.

The device will be available in 16GB and 32GB versions -- no 64GB variant will be available. And it supports external memory cards up to 64GB. The GS5's 2.5GHz quad-core processor is significantly more powerful than the GS4's 1.6 GHz quad-core chip. (U.S. variant.)

The cameras on the Galaxy S5 got a notable makeover. The front-facing camera is now 2.1MP, compared to the S4's 2MP, and the rear camera is 16MP, compared to the 13MP shooter on the GS4. The camera also has a faster autofocus feature, which Samsung claims is the fastest on any smartphone. It also has a cool new feature that lets you focus on one part of an image and blur out the rest, not unlike the blurring feature in Instagram. The improvements sound good to me, but it was difficult to test them in the Galaxy Studio.

Like the GS4 Active smartphone, the Galaxy S5 is dust and water-resistant (not water proof, though), and has a IP67 rating, which basically means your device will be fine if you drop it into a pool -- or, more likely, the commode -- for up to 30 minutes. And your phone should be able to brave a fairly serious wind storm, or maybe just a really dirty, lint-filled pocket. ( "Read more about the IP67 rating on AndroidAuthority.com.)

The Galaxy S5 also got a finger-print scanner that's similar to the Touch ID scanner on Apple's iPhone 5S, but you have to swipe your finger instead of just holding it to the sensor like you can with Touch ID. It is built into the GS5 home button. I didn't want to save any fingerprints on test devices, even though Samsung says they are encrypted and never shared, so I can't really say how the experience compares to Touch ID.

The Galaxy S5 has a built-in heart-rate monitor, which works along with the company's prepackaged S Health app suite. Samsung is trying to build some of most common fitness band functionality into its apps and devices. Again, this sounds cool, but I wasn't able to test the feature. And I'm not so sure how much I'd actually use the S Health apps anyway.

Two more notable features that couldn't really be tested in the Galaxy Studio environment: "Ultra Power Saving Mode," which lets you disable "non-essential" features when your battery is critically low, to extend the life; and a "Download Booster" feature that claims to combine the functionality of Wi-Fi and LTE to give you faster data speeds.

Samsung made some significant design enhancements to its TouchWiz Android UI, most notably the sleek and smooth transitions when you flip through home-screen panels and the icon-based settings menus. Flipping through the home screen panels on the Galaxy S5 is a bit like turning pages in a book, and I really like it. The GS4 home-screen transitions look awkward and boring when compared to GS5 transitions. And the list-based GS4 setting menu looks outdated; I like the "flat" TouchWiz icons in the GS5's Android KitKat 4.4.2 software much better.

I didn't really dig too much into the software, but the basic TouchWiz experience seemed the same or very similar. For example, you still move and place widgets and apps in the same way. All navigation is based on swiping through home-screen panels, pulling down the menu from the top, and using the main hardware Home button, along with the two on-screen Menu and Return keys.

The Galaxy S5 runs a newer version of Android than the GS4, but Samsung's "skin" is very similar, if polished and updated.

Samsung Galaxy S5 Hands On Conclusion

Overall, I'm a bit underwhelmed by Samsung's latest and greatest. The fact of the matter is that most new smartphones are minor evolutions of their previous models, and I should know at this point not to expect a revolution every time a smartphone I like gets updated. But I still do. And the GS5 just doesn't wow me.

That said, the iPhone 5s's Touch ID feature is probably my single favorite thing about the device. It's convenient, simple and it works great. (It may not be as secure as it could be, but it's better than no password at all, and lots of people don't use passwords.) So if the GS5 fingerprint scanner works well it could prove to significantly better the Galaxy S family.

The heart-rate monitor is interesting, as well, and I supposed some users who want to replace their fitness bands with smartphone-based apps, could be excited about the direction Samsung is taking. But we're still a ways away from the point when a phone can do everything a full-feature fitness band can.

The new camera features, the download booster and the power saving mode will all be welcome additions, assuming they work as advertised.

I'm still waiting for Android KitKat 4.4 on my GS4, and as this point, it seems like I'll probably have a newer Android phone by the time it arrives. So KitKat on the GS5 is certainly a good thing -- though not one that helps current GS4 owners.

I'm honestly not compelled to run out and buy the Galaxy S5 just as soon as I can. (Pricing and availability details haven't been announced, but T-Mobile said it will release the device in April, and Verizon launched an information-sign-up page for interested buyers.) The hardware is very similar to the GS4, not enough for me to run out and upgrade immediately. And the TouchWiz Android customization is still a bit much, though it looks better on the GS5 than it has in the past.

AS

Al Sacco covers Mobile and Wireless for CIO.com. Follow Al on Twitter @ASacco. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.

This story, "Hands-On First Impressions of Samsung's Galaxy S5 Smartphone" was originally published by CIO .

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